Mark Stricherz: What's Wrong with Modern Presidential Campaign Books

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mark Stricherz is working on a book about how secular, educated elites transformed the Democratic party.]

Around the time Theodore H. White ended his Making of the President series, Jules Witcover emerged as his de facto successor. Witcover wrote big, sprawling books about the modern presidential campaign. By himself, he wrote three dealing with the 1968 presidential race--The Resurrection of Richard Nixon; 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy; and The Year the Dream Died--and one dealing with the 1976 election--Marathon. With Jack Germond he cowrote books about every presidential race between 1980 and 1992: Blue Smoke and Mirrors, Wake Us When It's Over, Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars? and Mad as Hell. His latest tome, last year's The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch, is a memoir of his time on the presidential campaign trail.

One virtue of Witcover's campaign coverage, as all this suggests, was his indefatigability. Another was his adroit reporting of the "inside baseball" of presidential campaigns. (One of his many scoops was that Harry Dent, southern coordinator for President Ford's election, played a major role in Ford winning the 1976 Republican nomination, largely by convincing Mississippi's GOP state party chairman, Clarke Reed, to back Ford over Reagan.) In fact, Witcover was in some ways better than White at getting the inside skinny, partly because he was a shrewder judge of character.

Even so, Witcover's series on the American presidential campaign not only doesn't stack up to White's, it also embodies how the whole genre has been corrupted. What happened to this once-great brand? The corruption has not been due to poor writing: Though Witcover's prose begets eyestrain and frequent trips to the bathroom, Walter Shapiro's and Joe Klein's induce chuckles and murmurs of appreciation. Nor has it been due to form. Campaign authors have resorted to most every form imaginable: Journalism-plus-fabulism (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson), the nonfiction novel (What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer), the fictional novel (Primary Colors by Klein), comedic nonfiction (Trail Fever by Michael Lewis and Smashmouth by Dana Milbank), popular history (The Last Campaign by Zachary Karabell), and even the postmodern memoir (Shapiro's One-Car Caravan).

No, the corruption of the modern presidential campaign book owes to the content. Campaign authors are in the grip of the Teddy White syndrome: Writing almost entirely about political elites--the candidates, their aides, state and local party workers, even the media. And what they don't write about, in depth or really at all, is a rather important actor in democratic elections: voters.

The irony is that, as Nicholas Lemann once pointed out, Teddy White in his Making of the President series always wrote a long chapter about the American electorate. Born in 1915, White grew up in Boston in a Jewish ghetto and became a correspondent in China during World War II and in Europe afterwards. White grasped that politics was about more than campaign strategies and tactics: "Politics are only sociology in action," he wrote in a fine epigram that appears in his book on the 1960 campaign. Voters cast ballots for candidates not simply in response to the campaigns, media, and national events; their votes are based also on occupational, religious, regional, class, ethnic, and, of course, racial considerations.

Though a commonplace today, pluralism does not loom large in the journalism and history books of the early 1960s. But it informed some of Whites's most insightful passages. Nowhere was this truer than his portrayal of the citizen-intellectual wing of the Democratic party in 1960. White recognized that, along with the disaffected South, college-educated liberals, whose ranks skyrocketed in the postwar period, were undermining the Roosevelt coalition. White referred to them as "that huge but still stable element of citizen participation, the heritage of the Stevenson years of leadership in the Democratic Party--for Stevenson changed the Democratic Party almost as much as did Franklin D. Roosevelt, by trumpeting to its services scores of thousands of emancipated middle-class Americans who fit into no neat category of occupations, traditions, or pressure blocs."

White's prescience was soon borne out. Antiwar Democrats such as Fred Dutton and George McGovern, both of whom got their start working for Stevenson's presidential bids, used a reform commission created at the 1968 Democratic convention to loosen the party's historic ties with Catholics and working-class whites in exchange for voters from the emerging feminist and youth movements. To be fair, White later failed to link directly the revolt of the citizen-intellectual wing of the party with the breakup of the New Deal coalition. Nevertheless, his books on the 1972 and 1980 campaigns suggest as much. As he wrote in America In Search of Itself, "With women, blacks, and other minorities (Hispanics and Jews), the Democrats might, someday, build another coalition--but it would differ from the old Roosevelt alliance."

Although White always included a section in his campaign books on voters, he did so in an impressionistic style, by relying on government statistics and reports rather than interviews with voters. Accordingly, his portraits of the electorate lacked detail, nuance, even dynamism. But their deficiencies were more than those of style and method; they were also ones of content. One can see this by comparing his books with Samuel Lubell's The Future of American Politics (1952), which remains the best presidential campaign book ever. (Tom Wolfe, in his Jefferson Lecture last May, spoke of his reaction to Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, the book that examined why Kansas didn't vote for Kerry in 2004: "Had Frank only looked back to Samuel Lubell, he would have known why.")

Born in 1911, Lubell had served not only as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe, but also as a government aide in World War II, most notably as assistant to Bernard Baruch, drawing up wartime reports and postwar planning. From this latter experience Lubell must have been tempted by the top-down view of democratic politics--government elites make policy and the masses respond. Instead, he embraced a fairly radical bottom-up version. In contrast to White, who wrote about politics mainly from the perspective of political elites, Lubell wrote about it mainly from the point of view of the masses. As he wrote in The Future of American Politics, "For every presidential election really is a self portrait of America, a self-portrait with each ballot serving as another brush stroke and through which all the emotions of the American people find expression."

The Future of American Politics is partly about why Harry Truman shocked Thomas Dewey in 1948. Lubell found that Truman owed his victory not to any of his administration's policies. Rather, Truman won because of unexpected support from German Americans who, after having voted against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944, returned to the Democratic fold: "Although there were exceptions, Truman's greatest gains generally came in the same German-American counties where Roosevelt suffered his heaviest losses in 1940," Lubell wrote. "Truman made no special appeal to these German-Americans (even after the swing took place, he did not know what happened). Still, German-Americans all over the country shifted together, as if in response to some subconscious instinct." (Truman carried three states with large German populations--Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio--that FDR lost four years earlier. Had Truman lost those states, the 1948 election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives.)

The fine brush-stroke quality of The Future of American Politics lies primarily in its countless face-to-face interviews Lubell conducted with voters in their neighborhoods. In the case of German Americans, he traveled to Stearns County, Minnesota, home of such famous isolationists as Charles Lindbergh and William Lemke, yielding such gems as the following: "When I asked John Arcenau whether he knew anyone who voted Democratic in 1948 and Republican in 1950, he guffawed. 'Me, I'm one!' and went on, 'I'll never vote Democratic again! Not even if they run a Catholic for President.' 'Why?' 'The war,' he boomed back. 'Demo crats always bring wars. If we hadn't gotten into the First World War we wouldn't be in the mess we are in today.'"

Witcover, as well as Germond, did write about voters in their books--just not in a meaningful way. They rarely bothered to mention that voters cast ballots on various religious, ethnic, regional, and class considerations, let alone subconscious instinct. Indeed, as two of the original "boys on the bus"--the title of Timothy Crouse's account of the 1972 campaign press corps--they viewed presidential campaigns in a childish sort of way. The contests were portrayed as athletic contests, in the absence of fans. "Covering politics was a game much like sports," Witcover writes in The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch. His other books abound with analogies between politics and baseball games, prizefights, and marathons. Nor were Witcover and Germond alone in their top-down view: Walter Shapiro writes that "presidential politics seems closer in spirit to a sporting contest than a transfer of power that will bequeath the victor globe-girding military and economic authority."

Having contracted the Teddy White syndrome, Witcover and his heirs suffer its main side effect. They are blind to many of the biggest stories about presidential politics in the last three decades. To take one famous example, Witcover and Germond never adequately explained how Republicans rose to majority status: Aside from a few banal conclusions about the disaffection of southern whites, they never explored why millions of Catholics and northern working-class white voters did the same. It could not have surprised them. Their account of the 1988 campaign (Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars?) reported that Republicans took a focus group of voters in Paramus, New Jersey, and used their responses to attack Michael Dukakis as soft on crime and unpatriotic.

It might seem odd that recent campaign chroniclers, almost all of whom have been liberal Democrats, embrace a variation of the Great Man theory of history. After all, it's the progressive historians who are supposed to write about The People. But the corruption of the modern presidential campaign book suggests that conservatives had it right all along. Elite journalists aren't all that interested in things like the masses and representative democracy.

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